“Mississippi is the greatest state in the nation — the people are great,” said Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, as he bumped along the state’s back roads heading for a stop in his campaign for governor. “The rest of the country needs to realize that. We have so much potential in Mississippi. That’s why I’m in this race — to help us capture that potential and move us forward.”
DuPree has served as mayor of Hattiesburg, a growing city in southern Mississippi, since his election in 2001. He has served on the Forrest County Board of Supervisors and on the local School Board.
DuPree has a reputation as a hard-working man, in both the private and public sectors. He got his first job at 8 years old selling copies of the Hattiesburg American, and he’s never stopped working since, through a decade and a half as a manager with Sears & Roebuck and through 23 years of public service. Along the way he got married, raised a family, launched DuPree Realty with his wife, Johniece, went to college and on to graduate school, earning a doctorate in urban higher education. For more on the gubernatorial candidate, see his campaign Web site.
Now DuPree is traveling the state on what he calls a “listening campaign,” working the crowds and building support as he heads into the August 2 primary for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
Politic365 caught up with him for a quick interview about the challenges for his state, the role of education in Mississippi’s future, his success in bringing jobs to Hattiesburg and his strategy for how a Democrat can get elected governor in red-state Mississippi.
Politic365: Mayor DuPree, please give us your vision for Mississippi.
Johnny DuPree: My vision is to help move Mississippi forward, to help make Mississippi become first, not just in name only, but also in the categories that make a difference in our lives — education, job creation.
Politic365: Mississippi lags the nation in a number of categories. High-school graduates in the adult population are about 79 percent, while nationwide it is 85 percent, and for college graduates it is 19 percent vs. 27.5 percent. What does this mean for your state, and how do you close those gaps?
Johnny DuPree: You have to restructure education as a whole. You have to start with early childhood development and work your way up through the four-year institutions, working toward reducing the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate. The reality is that even in the four-year institutions, the number is too high as far as those who do not finish.
You’ve got to start at the beginning — work through the teacher recruitment, making sure they are trained and are using the correct resources. We are working with the universities to retool teachers in that regard. On the high-school level, make sure we have a curriculum that invites students to continue, that includes going back to hands-on, job-creation curriculum.
We have excellent two-year institutions that train students. We have excellent unions that help train students and actually give them a job after they are trained, industrial jobs such as welding — creating jobs for students after they graduate.
Politic365: You graduated high school in ’72, but you didn’t start in higher education until 20 years later, at a community college, and then you went on to earn a doctorate degree. That’s an unusual path.
Johnny DuPree: I actually started higher education in 1972, after I graduated. I started at the University of Southern Mississippi, but my wife and I married real young, and we had a baby real young, and then we had another baby, and I was not able to complete. I started another career at Sears & Roebuck and entered their management program. I didn’t see a need to continue until I was appointed to the Hattiesburg School Board. I realized at that point, seeing where our children were, that there were opportunities out there for my children in higher education. We always wanted to get a degree, that’s why we started. My wife didn’t graduate from high school — she actually received a GED, and then she went from there to receive her master’s degree in early childhood development. We enjoy education. We believe education is the start and the finish in making Mississippi a better place to live and making Mississippi first. An educated population is healthier, stays married longer, is able to find a job better, and we are able to recruit industry to my area when we have an educated population.
Not only is the four-year degree important, but also technical degrees, certification. Education is not just the four-year degree — education is being trained in different areas. That’s what we lack, not only in Mississippi, but also in America. The entrepreneurial spirit is not there anymore. We used to be job creators, we used to be business creators, but we don’t do that anymore. We think everybody must go to a four-year institution, but that’s not reality.
Politic365: The Nissan assembly plant, north of Jackson, had a huge impact on your state. Is that the type of industry you want to recruit if elected governor?
Johnny DuPree: We’ve been blessed in Hattiesburg. Last year we helped to create 1,000 jobs — very few cities did that. This year we were able to recruit a company from California, with average wages of $40,000. It’s a half-billion-dollar company, developing and manufacturing solar panels. We love to have those kinds of companies. We’d love to have an automobile factory, but I like the emerging companies. We want all, but 60 percent of people who work, work in small businesses, not in the large industries.
Politic365: How did you get the California company to come to Hattiesburg?
Johnny DuPree: We have an excellent economic-development team, in Hattiesburg and in the state of Mississippi. Hattiesburg worked diligently, worked together. There some incentives the company wanted, and there were some things we wanted. What we wanted was to make sure that they employ Mississippi residents, not only in the factory but also to do the construction and retrofitting. That’s what you have to do in job-creation — we need not be shy in asking for the things that we want.
As you continue to build educational capacity, as you continue to recruit, you can increase wages in Mississippi. Education is the beginning and the end, of better living, of a better lifestyle.
Politic365: Mississippi is way up in black-owned businesses. That must provide excitement and opportunities.
Johnny DuPree: It does. It means that we still have that spirit that we can do for ourselves. We are not looking for handouts. There are people all across Mississippi who want to own their business, who want to employ their own people, who want to determine their own fate.
Politic365: You are running for governor in what most consider a red state, a Republican state. Barack Obama did not win Mississippi — why not?
Johnny DuPree: President Obama did not campaign heavily in Mississippi, not at all. And in Mississippi, local politics is what it is all about. National politics and Mississippi politics are two different things. Look at the ’07 election and the ‘03 election, you have our Attorney General Jim Hood, the only Democrat who is a statewide office holder, he garnered more votes than the Republican governor. So Democrats are out there. Mississippians want someone who can connect to them, someone who has the experience, someone who they can look to, someone who has a history they can track.
Politic365: Marty Wiseman of the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State says the rule of thumb in Mississippi is that a Democrat gets 40 percent of the vote just by getting on the ballot, but “it’s the other 10 percent that is the real mountain to climb.” How will you get that 10 percent?
Johnny DuPree: I agree with Dr. Wiseman — I know Dr. Wiseman well. The difference is we have a history. We have five years on the school board, and as far as county government, we were elected three times, and we served 10 years. City government, we were elected three times, with 10 years of Hattiesburg administration. In ’08, I served as president of the Mississippi Municipal League, 208 cities. So we know most people, they know us, in county governments, in city governments, in schools. We have a history. I think that’s going to resonate. We’ve worked closely with the Legislature. All that’s going to make a difference.
And the ground game. Every election that I’ve been in, the way we won was through people on the ground, going door to door. We’re doing a listening campaign, going around the state, talking about the issues. It is the ground game that is going to make the difference.
Politic365: Any lessons as mayor that you could bring to the Governor’s Office?
Johnny DuPree: That you have to work together. You can’t do things in isolation. You can’t be a dictator. You can’t be someone who doesn’t respect other people’s thoughts, wishes, desires. It helped us build a coalition of people, elected officials, business leaders and community leaders. The goal is to work together. I think that’s what we’ve done in Hattiesburg.